FAR ROCKAWAY - Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman - James Gleick

Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman - James Gleick (1993)


Eventually the art went out of radio tinkering. Children forgot the pleasures of opening the cabinets and eviscerating their parents’ old Kadettes and Clubs. Solid electronic blocks replaced the radio set’s messy innards—so where once you could learn by tugging at soldered wires and staring into the orange glow of the vacuum tubes, eventually nothing remained but featureless ready-made chips, the old circuits compressed a thousandfold or more. The transistor, a microscopic quirk in a sliver of silicon, supplanted the reliably breakable tube, and so the world lost a well-used path into science.

In the 1920s, a generation before the coming of solid-state electronics, one could look at the circuits and see how the electron stream flowed. Radios had valves, as though electricity were a fluid to be diverted by plumbing. With the click of the knob came a significant hiss and hum, just at the edge of audibility. Later it was said that physicists could be divided into two groups, those who had played with chemistry sets and those who had played with radios. Chemistry sets had their appeal, but a boy like Richard Feynman, loving diagrams and maps, could see that the radio was its own map, a diagram of itself. Its parts expressed their function, once he learned to break the code of wires, resistors, crystals, and capacitors. He assembled a crystal set, attached oversized earphones from a rummage sale, and listened under the bedcovers until he fell asleep. Sometimes his parents would tiptoe in and take the earphones off their sleeping boy. When atmospheric conditions were right, his radio could pull in signals from far away—Schenectady in upstate New York or even station WACO from Waco, Texas. The mechanism responded to the touch. To change channels he slid a contact across a wire coil. Still, the radio was not like a watch, with gears and wheels. It was already one step removed from the mechanical world. Its essential magic was invisible after all. The crystal, motionless, captured waves of electromagnetic radiation from the ether.

Yet there was no ether—no substance bearing these waves. If scientists wished to imagine radio waves propagating with the unmistakable undulating rhythm of waves in a pond, they nonetheless had to face the fact that these waves were not in anything. Not in the era of relativity: Einstein was showing that if an ether existed it would have to be motionless with respect to any and all observers—though they themselves moved in different directions. This was impossible. “It seems that the aether has betaken itself to the land of the shades in a final effort to elude the inquisitive search of the physicist!” the mathematician Hermann Weyl wrote in 1918, the year Feynman was born. Through what medium, then, were radio waves sweeping in their brief journey from the aerials of downtown New York to Feynman’s second-story bedroom in a small frame house on the city’s outskirts? Whatever it was, the radio wave was only one of the many sorts of oscillations disturbing every region of space. Waves of light, physically identical to radio waves but many times shorter, crisscrossing hectically; infrared waves, perceptible as heat on the skin; the ominously named X rays; the ultra-high-frequency gamma rays, with wavelengths smaller than atoms—all these were just different guises of one phenomenon, electromagnetic radiation. Already space was an electromagnetic babel, and human-built transmitters were making it busier still. Fragmented voices, accidental clicks, slide-whistle drones: strange noises passed through one another, more waves in a well-corrugated waviness. These waves coexisted not in the ether but in a rather more abstract medium, the precise nature of which was posing difficulties for physicists. They could not imagine what it was—a problem that was only mildly allayed by the fact that they had a name for it, the electromagnetic field, or just the field. The field was merely a continuous surface or volume across which some quantity varied. It had no substance, yet it shook; it vibrated. Physicists were discovering that the vibrations sometimes behaved like particles, but this just complicated the issue. If they were particles, they were nonetheless particles with an undeniably wavelike quality that enabled boys like Feynman to tune in to certain desirable wavelengths, the ones carrying “The Shadow” and “Uncle Don” and advertisements for Eno Effervescent Salts. The scientific difficulties were obscure, known only to a handful of scientists more likely to speak German than English. The essence of the mystery, however, was clear to amateurs who read about Einstein in the newspapers and pondered the simple magic of a radio set.

No wonder so many future physicists started as radio tinkerers, and no wonder, before physicist became a commonplace word, so many of them grew up thinking they might become electrical engineers, professionals known to earn a good wage. Richard, called Ritty by his friends, seemed to be heading single-mindedly in that direction. He accumulated tube sets and an old storage battery from around the neighborhood. He assembled transformers, switches, and coils. A coil salvaged from a Ford automobile made showy sparks that burned brown-black holes in newspaper. When he found a leftover rheostat, he pushed 110-volt electricity through it until it overloaded and burned. He held the stinking, smoking thing outside his second-floor window, as the ashes drifted down to the grassy rear yard. This was standard emergency procedure. When a pungent odor drifted in downstairs during his mother’s bridge game, it meant that Ritty was dangling his metal wastebasket out the window, waiting for the flames to die out after an abortive experiment with shoe polish—he meant to melt it and use the liquid as black paint for his “lab,” a wooden crate roughly the size of a refrigerator, standing in his bedroom upstairs in the rear of the house. Screwed into the crate were various electrical switches and lights that Ritty had wired, in series and in parallel. His sister, Joan, nine years younger, served eagerly as a four-cents-a-week lab assistant. Her duties included putting a finger into a spark gap and enduring a mild shock for the entertainment of Ritty’s friends.

It had already occurred to psychologists that children are innate scientists, probing, puttering, experimenting with the possible and impossible in a confused local universe. Children and scientists share an outlook on life. If I do this, what will happen? is both the motto of the child at play and the defining refrain of the physical scientist. Every child is observer, analyst, and taxonomist, building a mental life through a sequence of intellectual revolutions, constructing theories and promptly shedding them when they no longer fit. The unfamiliar and the strange—these are the domain of all children and scientists.

None of which could fully account for the presence of laboratory, rheostat, and lab assistant—tokens of a certain vivid cultural stereotype. Richard Feynman was relentless in filling his bedroom with the trappings and systems of organized science.

Neither Country nor City

Charmed lives were led by the children of Far Rockaway, a village that amounted to a few hundred acres of frame houses and brick apartment blocks on a spit of beach floating off Long Island’s south shore. The neighborhood had been agglomerated into the political entity of New York City as one of the more than sixty towns and neighborhoods that merged as the borough of Queens in 1898. The city was investing generously in these neighborhoods, spending tens of millions of dollars on the laying of water mains, sewers, and roadways and the construction of grand public buildings. Still, in the first part of the twentieth century, before the IND subway line reached out across the marshes of Jamaica Bay, the city seemed a faraway place. Commuters took the Long Island Rail Road. Beyond Far Rockaway’s eastern border lay the small towns of Nassau County, Long Island. To the northwest, across marshy tongues of ocean called Mott Basin and Hassock Channel, lay a flat expanse that later became Idlewild Airport and then Kennedy International Airport. On foot or on their bicycles, Far Rockaway’s children had free run of a self-contained world: ivy-covered houses, fields, and vacant lots. No one has yet isolated the circumstances that help a child grow whole and independent, but they were present. At some point in a town’s evolution, houses and fences grow dense enough to form a connected barrier. When that critical point is reached, movement is mostly restricted to public streets. In Far Rockaway boys and girls still percolated through the neighborhood and established their own paths through backyards and empty lots behind the houses and streets. They were autonomous and enterprising in play, roaming far from their parents’ immediate oversight, riding their bicycles without accounting for their whereabouts. They could wander through fields on the way to the shore, and then they could rent boats and row them up and down the protected inlets. Richard walked to the library and, sitting on the stone steps, watched people go by in all directions. Distant as New York seemed, he felt bound enough to the great city to look down on the outsiders living a few blocks away, in Cedarhurst, Long Island. But he also knew that his neighborhood was a place apart.

“When I was a child I thought we lived at the end of the world,” wrote another New Yorker, the critic Alfred Kazin; he grew up in Brownsville, a Brooklyn neighborhood a little poorer and almost as remote, another district of Jewish immigrants and children of immigrants occupying that unusual boundary between the urban and the rural. “There were always raw patches of unused city land all around us filled with ‘monument works’ where they cut and stored tombstones, as there were still on our street farmhouses and the remains of old cobbled driveways,” he wrote—“most of it dead land, neither country nor city… . That was the way to the ocean we always took summer evenings—through silent streets of old broken houses whose smoky red Victorian fronts looked as if the paint had clotted like blood and had then been mixed with soot—past infinite weedy lots… .”

For Ritty Feynman the beach was best of all—the long southern strand stretching almost unbroken to the far east end of Long Island, framed by its boardwalk and summer hotels, cottages and thousands of private lockers. Far Rockaway was a summer resort with beach clubs for people from the city: the Ostend Baths, Roche’s (for a long time Richard thought this was named after the insect), the Arnold. There were wooden pavilions and changing rooms for rent by the season, with shiny locks and keys. For the local children, though, the beach served its purpose the year round. They splashed in the light surf, attenuated by a long breakwater pale beneath the waves. At the height of the summer’s crowds the pink and green of bathing suits dotted the sand like gumdrops. It was his favorite place. He usually rode his bicycle the four thousand feet from his house (a distance that expanded in his later memory to two miles). He went with friends or alone. The sky was larger there than anywhere else in the city’s confines; the ocean tempted his imagination as it does any child’s. All those waves, all that space, the boats crawling like apparitions along the horizon toward New York Harbor, Europe and Africa lying far beyond, at the end of a long uninterrupted vector curving downward below the sky. It sometimes seemed that the things near the sea were the only things that were any good.

The dome of the sky stretched upward. The arcs of the sun and moon crossed directly ahead, rising and falling with the season. He could splash his heels in the surf and recognize a line that formed the tripartite boundary between earth, sea, and air. At night he would take his flashlight. For teenagers the beach was a site for social mixing between boys and girls; he did his best, though he sometimes felt gawky. He often swam. When he was forty-three, setting out nearly everything he knew about physics in the historic two-year undergraduate course that became The Feynman Lectures on Physics, he stood before a hall of freshmen and tried to place them mentally at the beach. “If we stand on the shore and look at the sea,” he said, “we see the water, the waves breaking, the foam, the sloshing motion of the water, the sound, the air, the winds and the clouds, the sun and the blue sky, and light; there is sand and there are rocks of various hardness and permanence, color and texture. There are animals and seaweed, hunger and disease, and the observer on the beach; there may even be happiness and thought.” Nature was elemental there, though for Feynman elemental did not mean simple or austere. The questions he considered within the physicist’s purview—the fundamental questions—arose on the beach. “Is the sand other than the rocks? That is, is the sand perhaps nothing but a great number of very tiny stones? Is the moon a great rock? If we understood rocks, would we also understand the sand and the moon? Is the wind a sloshing of the air analogous to the sloshing motion of the water in the sea?”

The great European migration to America was ending. For the Jews of Russia, Eastern Europe, and Germany, for the Irish and the Italians, the first-hand and first-generation memories would now recede. The outer neighborhoods of New York flourished in the generations before World War II and then began to wane. In Far Rockaway not much changed visibly in the sixty-nine years of Feynman’s lifetime. When Feynman returned on a visit with his children a few years before his death, everything seemed shrunken and forlorn, the fields and vacant lots were gone, but it was the same beach with its boardwalk, the same high school, the same house he had wired for radio broadcasts—the house now divided, to accommodate a tenant, and not nearly so spacious as in memory. He did not ring the bell. The village’s main street, Central Avenue, seemed shabby and narrow. The population had become largely Orthodox Jewish, and Feynman was vaguely disturbed to see so many yarmulkes, or, as he actually said, “those little hats that they wear”—meaning: I don’t care what things are called. And casually repudiating the culture that hung as thick in the air of his childhood as the smoke of the city or the salt of the ocean.

The Judaism of Far Rockaway took in a liberal range of styles of belief, almost broad enough to encompass atheists like Richard’s father, Melville. It was a mostly Reform Judaism, letting go the absolutist and fundamental traditions for the sake of a gentle, ethical humanism, well suited for fresh Americans pinning their hopes on children who might make their way into the mainstream of the New World. Some households barely honored the Sabbath. In some, like Feynman’s, Yiddish would have been a foreign language. The Feynmans belonged to the neighborhood temple. Richard went to Sunday school for a while and belonged to a Shaaray Tefila youth group that organized after-school activities. Religion remained part of the village’s ethical core. Families like the Feynmans, in neighborhoods all around greater New York City, produced in the first half of the twentieth century an outpouring of men and women who became successful in many fields, but especially science. These hundred-odd square miles of the planet’s surface were disproportionately fertile in the spawning of Nobel laureates. Many families, as Jews, were embedded in a culture that prized learning and discourse; immigrants and the children of immigrants worked to fulfill themselves through their own children, who had to be sharply conscious of their parents’ hopes and sacrifices. They shared a sense that science, as a profession, rewarded merit. In fact, the best colleges and universities continued to raise barriers against Jewish applicants, and their science faculties remained determinedly Protestant, until after World War II. Science nevertheless offered the appearance of a level landscape, where the rules seemed mathematical and clear, free from the hidden variables of taste and class.

As a town Far">22"/> to America was ending. For the Jews of Russia, Eastern Europe, and Germany, for the Irish and the Italians, the first-hand and first-generation memories would now recede. The outer neighborhoods of New York flourished in the generations before World War II and then began to wane. In Far Rockaway not much changed visibly in the sixty-nine years of Feynman’s lifetime. When Feynman returned on a visit with his children a few years before his death, everything seemed shrunken and forlorn, the fields and vacant lots were gone, but it was the same beach with its boardwalk, the same high school, the same house he had wired for radio broadcasts—the house now divided, to accommodate a tenant, and not nearly so spacious as in memory. He did not ring the bell. The village’s main street, Central Avenue, seemed shabby and narrow. The population had become largely Orthodox Jewish, and Feynman was vaguely disturbed to see so many yarmulkes, or, as he actually said, “those little hats that they wear”—meaning: I don’t care what things are called. And casually repudiating the culture that hung as thick in the air of his childhood as the smoke of the city or the salt of the ocean.

The Judaism of Far Rockaway took in a liberal range of styles of belief, almost broad enough to encompass atheists like Richard’s father, Melville. It was a mostly Reform Judaism, letting go the absolutist and fundamental traditions for the sake of a gentle, ethical humanism, well suited for fresh Americans pinning their hopes on children who might make their way into the mainstream of the New World. Some households barely honored the Sabbath. In some, like Feynman’s, Yiddish would have been a foreign language. The Feynmans belonged to the neighborhood temple. Richard went to Sunday school for a while and belonged to a Shaaray Tefila youth group that organized after-school activities. Religion remained part of the village’s ethical core. Families like the Feynmans, in neighborhoods all around greater New York City, produced in the first half of the twentieth century an outpouring of men and women who became successful in many fields, but especially science. These hundred-odd square miles of the planet’s surface were disproportionately fertile in the spawning of Nobel laureates. Many families, as Jews, were embedded in a culture that prized learning and discourse; immigrants and the children of immigrants worked to fulfill themselves through their own children, who had to be sharply conscious of their parents’ hopes and sacrifices. They shared a sense that science, as a profession, rewarded merit. In fact, the best colleges and universities continued to raise barriers against Jewish applicants, and their science faculties remained determinedly Protestant, until after World War II. Science nevertheless offered the appearance of a level landscape, where the rules seemed mathematical and clear, free from the hidden variables of taste and class.

As a town Far Rockaway had a center that even Cedarhurst lacked. When Richard’s mother, Lucille, walking down to Central Avenue, headed for stores like Nebenzahl’s and Stark’s, she appreciated the centralization. She knew her children’s teachers personally, helped get the school lunchroom painted, and joined her neighbors in collecting the set of red glassware given out as a promotion by a local movie theater. This village looked inward as carefully as the shtetl that remained in some memories. There was a consistency of belief and behavior. To be honest, to be principled, to study, to save money against hard times—the rules were not so much taught as assumed. Everyone worked hard. There was no sense of poverty—certainly not in Feynman’s family, though later he realized that two families had shared one house because neither could get by alone. Nor in his friend Leonard Mautner’s, even after the father had died and an older brother was holding the family together by selling eggs and butter from house to house. “That was the way the world was,” Feynman said long afterward. “But now I realize that everybody was struggling like mad. Everybody was struggling and it didn’t seem like a struggle.” For children, life in such neighborhoods brought a rare childhood combination of freedom and moral rigor. It seemed to Feynman that morality was made easy. He was allowed to surrender to a natural inclination to be honest. It was the downhill course.

A Birth and a Death

Melville Feynman (he pronounced his surname like the more standard variants: Fineman or Feinman) came from Minsk, Byelorussia. He immigrated with his parents, Louis and Anne, in 1895, at the age of five, and grew up in Patchogue, Long Island. He had a fascination with science but, like other immigrating Jews of his era, no possible means to fulfill it. He studied a fringe version of medicine called homeopathy; then he embarked on a series of businesses, selling uniforms for police officers and mail carriers, selling an automobile polish called Whiz (for a while the Feynmans had a garage full of it), trying to open a chain of cleaners, and finally returning to the uniform business with a company called Wender & Goldstein. He struggled for much of his business life.

His wife had grown up in better circumstances. Lucille was the daughter of a successful milliner who had emigrated as a child from Poland to an English orphanage, where he acquired the name Henry Phillips. From there Lucille’s father came to the United States, where he got his first job selling needles and thread from a pack on his back. He met Johanna Helinsky, a daughter of German-Polish immigrants, when she repaired his watch in a store on the Lower East Side of New York. Henry and Johanna not only married but also went into business together. They had an idea that rationalized the trimming of the elaborate hats that women wore before World War I, and their millinery business thrived. They moved to a town house well uptown on the East Side, on 92d Street near Park Avenue, and there Lucille, the youngest of their five children, was born in 1895.

Like many well-off, assimilating Jews, Lucille Phillips attended the Ethical Culture School (an institution whose broad humanist ethos soon left its mark on J. Robert Oppenheimer, nine years her junior). She prepared to teach kindergarten. Instead, soon after graduating, still a teenager, she met Melville. The introduction to her future husband came through her best friend. Melville was the friend’s date; Lucille was invited to accompany a friend of Melville’s. They went for a drive, with Lucille joining Melville’s friend sitting in the back seat. On the return trip, it was Lucille and Melville who sat together.

A few days later he said, “Don’t get married to anybody else.” This was not quite a proposal, and her father would not allow her to marry Melville until three years later, when she turned twenty-one. They moved into an inexpensive apartment in upper Manhattan in 1917, and Richard was born in a Manhattan hospital the next year.

A later family legend held that Melville announced in advance that, if the baby was a boy, he would be a scientist. Lucille supposedly replied, Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. But Richard’s father undertook to help his prophecy along. Before the baby was out of his high chair, he brought home some blue and white floor tiles and laid them out in patterns, blue-white-blue-white or blue-white-white-blue-white-white, trying to coax the baby to recognize visual rhythms, the shadow of mathematics. Richard had walked at an early age, but he was two before he talked. His mother worried for months. Then, as late talkers so often do, Richard became suddenly and unstoppably voluble. Melville bought the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Richard devoured it. Melville took his son on trips to the American Museum of Natural History, with its animal tableaux in glass cases and its famous, towering, bone-and-wire dinosaurs. He described dinosaurs in a way that taught a lesson about expressing dimensions in human units: “twenty-five feet high and the head is six feet across” meant, he explained, that “if he stood in our front yard he would be high enough to put his head through the window but not quite because the head is a little bit too wide and it would break the window”—a vivid enough illustration for any small boy.

Melville’s gift to the family was knowledge and seriousness. Humor and a love of storytelling came from Lucille. At any rate, that was how family lore tended to apportion their influence. Melville liked to laugh at the stories his wife and children told, at dinner and afterward, when the family regularly read aloud. He had a surprising giggle, and his son acquired an eerily exact facsimile. Comedy, for Lucille, was a high calling and a way of defying misfortune: the hard reality of her grandparents’ lives in a Polish ghetto, and tragedy in her own family. Her mother suffered from epilepsy and her eldest sister from schizophrenia. Except for another sister, Pearl, her brothers and sisters died young.

Early death also came to her new household. In the winter Richard was five, she gave birth to a second son, named Henry Phillips Feynman, after her father, who had died a year before. Four weeks later the baby came down with a fever. A fingernail had been bleeding and never quite healed. Within days the baby was dead, probably from spinal meningitis. The grief, the quick turning of happiness into despair—and surely for Richard the fear as well—darkened their home for a long time. He had waited for a brother. Now he had a lesson in human precariousness, in the cruelty of nature’s untamed accidents. Later he almost never spoke of the harsh death that dominated this year. He had no brother or sister again until finally, when he was nine, Joan was born. Henry’s presence remained a shadow in the household. Richard knew—even Joan knew—that their mother always kept a birth certificate and a hat that had once belonged to a boy whose remains now lay in the vault of the family mausoleum five miles away, behind a stone plate inscribed, “HENRY PHILLIPS FEYNMAN JANUARY 24, 1924-FEBRUARY 25, 1924.”

The Feynmans moved several times, leaving Manhattan for the small towns straddling the city border: first to Far Rockaway; then from Far Rockaway to Baldwin, Long Island; then to Cedarhurst, when Richard was about ten, and then back to Far Rockaway. Lucille’s father owned a house there, and they moved in—a two-story house of stucco the color of sand, on a small lot at 14 New Broadway. There were front and rear yards and a double driveway. They shared the house with Lucille’s sister Pearl and her family—her husband, Ralph Lewine, a boy, Robert, just older than Richard, and a girl, Frances, just younger. A rail of white wood ringed the porch. The ground floor held two living rooms, one for show and one for general use, with gas logs in a fireplace for cold days. The bedrooms were small, but there were eight of them. Richard’s, on the second floor, overlooked the back yard, with its forsythia and peach tree. Some evenings the adults would come home to find his cousin, Frances, shivering at the upstairs landing, unable to sleep because Richard, as chief baby-sitter, had told ghost stories drawing their mood from the old Gothic panels that lined the stairs.

The household had two other members during those pre-Depression years, a German immigrant couple, Ludwig and Marie, easing their passage into the United States by working as household servants for room and board. Marie cooked; Ludwig said wryly that he was gardener, chauffeur, and butler, serving meals in a formal white coat. They also arranged some serious and inventive play. With Ludwig’s help the north window of the garage became the North Fenster Bank. Everyone took turns playing teller and customer. As Ludwig and Marie learned English they taught the children other routines: the protocols of gardening and formal table manners. If Feynman acquired such skills, he carefully shed them later.

To Joan, the youngest of all the children, it seemed like a well-run household where things happened when they were supposed to happen. Late one night, however, when she was three or four, her brother shook her awake in violation of the routine. He said he had permission to show her something rare and wonderful. They walked, holding hands, onto Far Rockaway’s small golf course, away from the illuminated streets. “Look up,” Richard said. There, far above them, the streaky wine-green curtains of the aurora borealis rippled against the sky. One of nature’s surprises. Somewhere in the upper atmosphere solar particles, focused by the earth’s magnetosphere, ripped open trails of luminous high-voltage ionization. It was a sight that the street lights of a growing city would soon cast out forever.

It’s Worth It

The mathematics and the tinkering developed separately. At home the scientific inventory expanded to include chemicals from chemistry sets, lenses from a telescope, and photographic developing equipment. Ritty wired his laboratory into the electrical circuits of the entire house, so that he could plug his earphones in anywhere and make impromptu broadcasts through a portable loudspeaker. His father declared—something he had heard—that electrochemistry was an important new field, and Ritty tried in vain to figure out what electrochemistry was: he made piles of dry chemicals and set live wires in them. A jury-rigged motor rocked his baby sister’s crib. When his parents came home late one night, they opened the door to a sudden clang-clang-clang and Ritty’s shout: “It works!” They now had a burglar alarm. If his mother’s bridge partners asked how she could tolerate the noise, or the chemical smoke, or the not-so-invisible ink on the good linen hand towels, she said calmly that it was worth it. There were no second thoughts in the middle-class Jewish families of New York about the value of ambition on the children’s behalf.

The Feynmans raised their children according to a silent creed shared with many of their neighbors. Only rarely did they express its tenets, but they lived by them. They were sending their children into a world of hardships and dangers. A parent does all he or she can to bring a child up “so that he can better face the world and meet the intense competition of others for existence,” as Melville once put it. The child will have to find a niche in which he can live a useful and fruitful life. The parents’ motives are selfish—for nothing can magnify parents in the eyes of their neighbors as much as the child’s success. “When a child does something good and unusual,” Melville wrote, “it is the parents chest that swells up and who looks around and says to his neighbors (without actually speaking, of course) ‘See what I have wrought? Isn’t he wonderful? What have you got that can equal what I can show?’ And the neighbors help the ego of the parent along by acclaiming the wonders of the child and by admiring the parent for his success …” A life in the business world, “the commercial world,” is arid and exhausting; turn rather to the professions, the world of learning and culture. Ultimately, for the sacrifices of his parents a child owes no debt—or rather the debt is paid to his own children in turn.

The adult Richard Feynman became an adept teller of stories about himself, and through these stories came a picture of his father as a man transmitting a set of lessons about science. The lessons were both naïve and wise. Melville Feynman placed a high value on curiosity and a low value on outward appearances. He wanted Richard to mistrust jargon and uniforms; as a salesman, he said, he saw the uniforms empty. The pope himself was just a man in a uniform. When Melville took his son on walks, he would turn over stones and tell him about the ants and the worms or the stars and the waves. He favored process over facts. His desire to explain such things often outstripped his knowledge of them; much later Feynman recognized that his father must have invented sometimes. The gift of these lessons, as Feynman expressed it in his two favorite stories about his father, was a way of thinking about scientific knowledge.

One was the story about birds. Fathers and sons often walked together on summer weekends in the Catskill Mountains of New York, and one day a boy said to Richard, “See that bird? What kind of bird is that?”

I said, “I haven’t the slightest idea what kind of bird it is.”
He says, “It’s a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn’t teach you anything!”
But it was the opposite. He had already taught me: “See that bird?” he says. “It’s a Spencer’s warbler.” (I knew he didn’t know the real name.) “Well, in Italian, it’s a Chutto Lapittida. In Portuguese, it’s a Bom da Peida. In Chinese, it’s a Chung-long-tah, and in Japanese, it’s a Katano Tekeda. You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing—that’s what counts.”

The second story also carried a moral about the difference between the name and the thing named. Richard asks his father why, when he pulls his red wagon forward, a ball rolls to the back.

“That,” he says, “nobody knows. The general principle is that things that are moving try to keep on moving, and things that are standing still tend to stand still, unless you push on them hard.” And he says, “This tendency is called inertia, but nobody knows why it’s true.” Now that’s a deep understanding.

Deeper than Melville could have known: few scientists or educators recognized that even a complete Newtonian understanding of force and inertia leaves the why unanswered. The universe does not have to be that way. It is hard enough to explain inertia to a child; to recognize that the ball actually moves forward slightly with respect to the ground while moving backward sharply with respect to the wagon; to see the role of friction in transferring the force; to see that every body perseveres in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to change its state by forces impressed upon it. It is hard enough to convey all that without adding an almost scholastically subtle lesson about the nature of explanation. Newton’s laws do explain why balls roll to the back of wagons, why baseballs travel in wind-bent parabolas, and even why crystals pick up radio waves, up to a point. Later Feynman became acutely conscious of the limits of such explanations. He agonized over the difficulty of truly explaining how a magnet picks up an iron bar or how the earth imparts the force called gravity to a projectile. The Feynman who developed an agnosticism about such concepts as inertia had a stranger physics in mind as well, the physics being born in Europe while father and son talked about wagons. Quantum mechanics imposed a new sort of doubt on science, and Feynman expressed that doubt often, in many different ways. Do not ask how it can be like that. That, nobody knows.

Even when he was young, absorbing such wisdom, Feynman sometimes glimpsed the limits of his father’s understanding of science. As he was going to bed one night, he asked his father what algebra was.

“It’s a way of doing problems that you can’t do in arithmetic,” his father said.

“Like what?”

“Like a house and a garage rents for $15,000. How much does the garage rent for?”

Richard could see the trouble with that. And when he started high school, he came home upset by the apparent triviality of Algebra 1. He went into his sister’s room and asked, “Joanie, if 2x is equal to 4 and xis an unknown number, can you tell me what x is?” Of course she could, and Richard wanted to know why he should have to learn anything so obvious in high school. The same year, he could see just as easily what x must be if 2x was 32. The school quickly switched him into Algebra 2, taught by Miss Moore, a plump woman with an exquisite sense of discipline. Her class ran as a roundelay of problem solving, the students making a continual stream to and from the blackboard. Feynman was slightly ill at ease among the older students, but he already let friends know that he thought he was smarter. Still, his score on the school IQ test was a merely respectable 125.

At School

The New York City public schools of that era gained a reputation later for high quality, partly because of the nostalgic reminiscences of famous alumni. Feynman himself thought that his grammar school, Public School 39, had been stultifyingly barren: “an intellectual desert.” At first he learned more at home, often from the encyclopedia. Having trained himself in rudimentary algebra, he once concocted a set of four equations with four unknowns and showed it off to his arithmetic teacher, along with his methodical solution. She was impressed but mystified; she had to take it to the principal to find out whether it was correct. The school had one course in general science, for boys only, taught by a blustering, heavyset man called Major Connolly—evidently his World War I rank. All Feynman remembered from the course was the length of a meter in inches, 39.37, and a futile argument with the teacher over whether rays of light from a single source come out radially, as seemed logical to Richard, or in parallel, as in the conventional textbook diagrams of lens behavior. Even in grade school he had no doubt that he was right about such things. It was just obvious, physically—not the sort of argument that could be settled by an appeal to authority. At home, meanwhile, he boiled water by running 110-volt house current through it and watched the lines of blue and yellow sparks that flow when the current breaks. His father sometimes described the beauty of the flow of energy through the everyday world, from sunlight to plants to muscles to the mechanical work stored in the spring of a windup toy. Assigned at school to write verse, Richard applied this idea to a fancifully bucolic scene with a farmer plowing his field to make food, grass, and hay:

… Energy plays an important part
And it’s used in all this work;
Energy, yes, energy with power so great,
A kind that cannot shirk.

If the farmer had not this energy,
He would be at a loss,
But it’s sad to think, this energy
Belongs to a little brown horse.

Then he wrote another poem, brooding self-consciously about his own obsession with science and with the idea of science. Amid some borrowed apocalyptic imagery he expressed a feeling that science meant skepticism about God—at least about the standardized God to whom he had been exposed at school. Over the Feynmans’ rational and humanistic household God had never held much sway. “Science is making us wonder,” he began—then on second thought he scratched out the word wonder.

Science is making us wander,
Wander, far and wide;
And know, by this time,
Our face we ought to hide.

Some day, the mountain shall wither,
While the valleys get flooded with fire;
Or men shall be driven like horses,
And stamper, like beasts, in the mire.

And we say, “The earth was thrown from the sun,”
Or, “Evolution made us come to be
And we come from lowest of beasts,
Or one step back, the ape and monkey.”

Our minds are thinking of science,
And science is in our ears;
Our eyes are seeing science,
And science is in our fears.

Yes, we’re wandering from the Lord our God,
Away from the Holy One;
But now we cannot help it,
For it is already done.

But poetry was (Richard thought) “sissy-like.” This was no small problem. He suffered grievously from the standard curse of boy intellectuals, the fear of being thought, or of being, a sissy. He thought he was weak and physically awkward. In baseball he was inept. The sight of a ball rolling toward him across a street filled him with dread. Piano lessons dismayed him, too, not just because he played so poorly, but because he kept playing an exercise called “Dance of the Daisies.” For a while this verged on obsession. Anxiety would strike when his mother sent him to the store for “peppermint patties.”

As a natural corollary he was shy about girls. He worried about getting in fights with stronger boys. He tried to ingratiate himself with them by solving their school problems or showing how much he knew. He endured the canonical humiliations: for example, watching helplessly while some neighborhood children turned his first chemistry set into a brown, useless, sodden mass on the sidewalk in front of his house. He tried to be a good boy and then worried, as good boys do, about being too good—“goody-good.” He could hardly retreat from intellect to athleticism, but he could hold off the taint of sissiness by staying with the more practical side of the mental world, or so he thought. The practical man—that was how he saw himself. At Far Rockaway High School he came upon a series of mathematics primers with that magical phrase in the title—Arithmetic for the Practical Man; Algebra for the Practical Man—and he devoured them. He did not want to let himself be too “delicate,” and poetry, literature, drawing, and music were too delicate. Carpentry and machining were activities for real men.

For students whose competitive instincts could not be satisfied on the baseball field, New York’s high schools had the Interscholastic Algebra League: in other words, math team. In physics club Feynman and his friends studied the wave motions of light and the odd vortex phenomenon of smoke rings, and they re-created the already classic experiment of the California physicist Robert Millikan, using suspended oil drops to measure the charge of a single electron. But nothing gave Ritty the thrill of math team. Squads of five students from each school met in a classroom, the two teams sitting in a line, and a teacher would present a series of problems. These were designed with special cleverness. By agreement they could require no calculus—nothing more than standard algebra—yet the routines of algebra as taught in class would never suffice within the specified time. There was always some trick, or shortcut, without which the problem would just take too long. Or else there was no built-in shortcut; a student had to invent one that the designer had not foreseen.

According to the fashion of educators, students were often taught that using the proper methods mattered more than getting the correct answer. Here only the answer mattered. Students could fill the scratch pads with gibberish as long as they reached a solution and drew a circle around it. The mind had to learn indirection and flexibility. Head-on attacks were second best. Feynman lived for these competitions. Other boys were president and vice president, but Ritty was team captain, and the team always won. The team’s number-two student, sitting directly behind Feynman, would calculate furiously with his pencil, often beating the clock, and meanwhile he had a sensation that Feynman, in his peripheral vision, was not writing—never wrote, until the answer came to him. You are rowing a boat upstream. The river flows at three miles per hour; your speed against the current is four and one-quarter. You lose your hat on the water. Forty-five minutes later you realize it is missing and execute the instantaneous, acceleration-free about-face that such puzzles depend on. How long does it take to row back to your floating hat?

A simpler problem than most. Given a few minutes, the algebra is routine. But a student whose head starts filling with 3s and 4¼s, adding them or subtracting them, has already lost. This is a problem about reference frames. The river’s motion is irrelevant—as irrelevant as the earth’s motion through the solar system or the solar system’s motion through the galaxy. In fact all the velocities are just so much foliage. Ignore them, place your point of reference at the floating hat—think of yourself floating like the hat, the water motionless about you, the banks an irrelevant blur—now watch the boat, and you see at once, as Feynman did, that it will return in the same forty-five minutes it spent rowing away. For all the best competitors, the goal was a mental flash, achieved somewhere below consciousness. In these ideal instants one did not strain toward the answer so much as relax toward it. Often enough Feynman would get this unstudied insight while the problem was still being read out, and his opponents, before they could begin to compute, would see him ostentatiously write a single number and draw a circle around it. Then he would let out a loud sigh. In his senior year, when all the city’s public and private schools competed in the annual championship at New York University, Feynman placed first.

For most people it was clear enough what mathematics was—a cool body of facts and rote algorithms, under the established headings of arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. A few, though, always managed to find an entry into a freer and more colorful world, later called “recreational” mathematics. It was a world where rowboats had to ferry foxes and rabbits across imaginary streams in nonlethal combinations; where certain tribespeople always lied and others always told the truth; where gold coins had to be sorted from false-gold in just three weighings on a balance scale; where painters had to squeeze twelve-foot ladders around inconveniently sized corners. Some problems never went away. When an eight-quart jug of wine needed to be divided evenly, the only measures available were five quarts and three. When a monkey climbed a rope, the end was always tied to a balancing weight on the other side of a pulley (a physics problem in disguise). Numbers were prime or square or perfect. Probability theory suffused games and paradoxes, where coins were flipped and cards dealt until the head spun. Infinities multiplied: the infinity of counting numbers turned out to be demonstrably smaller than the infinity of points on a line. A boy plumbed geometry exactly as Euclid had, with compass and straightedge, making triangles and pentagons, inscribing polyhedra in circles, folding paper into the five Platonic solids. In Feynman’s case, the boy dreamed of glory. He and his friend Leonard Mautner thought they had found a solution to the problem of trisecting an angle with the Euclidean tools—a classic impossibility. Actually they had misunderstood the problem: they could trisect one side of an equilateral triangle, producing three equal segments, and they mistakenly assumed that the lines joining those segments to the far corner mark off equal angles. Riding around the neighborhood on their bicycles, Ritty and Len excitedly imagined the newspaper headlines: “Two Children in High School First Learning Geometry Solve the Age-Old Problem of the Trisection of the Angle.”

This cornucopian world was a place for play, not work. Yet unlike its stolid high-school counterpart it actually connected here and there to real, adult mathematics. Illusory though the feeling was at first, Feynman had the sense of conducting research, solving unsolved problems, actively exploring a live frontier instead of passively receiving the wisdom of a dead era. In school every problem had an answer. In recreational mathematics one could quickly understand and investigate problems that were open. Mathematical game playing also brought a release from authority. Recognizing some illogic in the customary notation for trigonometric functions, Feynman invented a new notation of his own: √x for sin √x for cos (x), √x for tan (x). He was free, but he was also extremely methodical. He memorized tables of logarithms and practiced mentally deriving values in between. He began to fill notebooks with formulas, continued fractions whose sums produced the constants π and e.

A page from one of Feynrnan's teenage notebooks.

A month before he turned fifteen he covered a page with an elated inch-high scrawl:

e + 1 = 0


By the end of this year he had mastered trigonometry and calculus, both differential and integral. His teachers could see where he was heading. After three days of Mr. Augsbury’s geometry class, Mr. Augsbury abdicated, putting his feet up on his desk and asking Richard to take charge. In algebra Richard had now taught himself conic sections and complex numbers, domains where the business of equation solving acquired a geometrical tinge, the solver having to associate symbols with curves in the plane or in space. He made sure the knowledge was practical. His notebooks contained not just the principles of these subjects but also extensive tables of trigonometric functions and integrals—not copied but calculated, often by original techniques that he devised for the purpose. For his calculus notebook he borrowed a title from the primers he had studied so avidly, Calculus for the Practical Man. When his classmates handed out yearbook sobriquets, Feynman was not in contention for the genuinely desirable Most Likely to Succeed and Most Intellectual. The consensus was Mad Genius.

All Things Are Made of Atoms

The first quantum idea—the notion that indivisible building blocks lay at the core of things—occurred to someone at least twenty-five hundred years ago, and with it physics began its slow birth, for otherwise not much can be understood about earth or water, fire or air. The idea must have seemed dubious at first. Nothing in the blunt appearance of dirt, marble, leaves, water, flesh, or bone suggests that it is so. But a few Greek philosophers in the fifth century B.C. found themselves hard pressed to produce any other satisfactory possibilities. Things change—crumble, fade, wither, or grow—yet they remain the same. The notion of immutability seemed to require some fundamental immutable parts. Their motion and recombination might give the appearance of change. On reflection, it seemed worthwhile to regard the basic constituents of matter as unchanging and indivisible: atomos—uncuttable. Whether they were also uniform was disputed. Plato thought of atoms as rigid blocks of pure geometry: cubes, octahedrons, tetrahedrons, and icosahedrons for the four pure elements, earth, air, fire, and water. Others imagined little hooks holding the atoms together (of what, though, could these hooks be made?).

Experiment was not the Greek way, but some observations supported the notion of atoms. Water evaporated; vapor condensed. Animals sent forth invisible messengers, their scents on the wind. A jar packed with ashes could still accept water; the volumes did not sum properly, suggesting interstices within matter. The mechanics were troubling and remained so. How did these grains move? How did they bind? “Cloudy, cloudy is the stuff of stones,” wrote the poet Richard Wilbur, and even in the atomic era it was hard to see how the physicist’s swarming clouds of particles could give rise to the hard-edged world of everyday sight and touch.

Someone who trusts science to explain the everyday must continually make connections between textbook knowledge and real knowledge, the knowledge we receive and the knowledge we truly own. We are told when we are young that the earth is round, that it circles the sun, that it spins on a tilted axis. We may accept the knowledge on faith, the frail teaching of a modern secular religion. Or we may solder these strands to a frame of understanding from which it may not so easily be disengaged. We watch the sun’s arc fall in the sky as winter approaches. We guess the time from the shadow of a lamppost. We walk across a merry-go-round and strain against the sideways Coriolis force, and we try to connect the sensation to our received knowledge of the habits of earthly cyclones: northern hemisphere, low pressure, counterclockwise. We time the vanishing point of a tall-masted ship below the horizon. The sun, the winds, the waves all join in preventing our return to a flat-earth world, where we could watch the tides follow the moon without understanding.

All things are made of atoms—how much harder it is to reconcile this received fact with the daily experience of solid tables and chairs. Glancing at the smooth depressions worn in the stone steps of an office building, we seldom recognize the cumulative loss of invisibly small particles struck off by ten million footfalls. Nor do we connect the geometrical facets of a jewel to a mental picture of atoms stacked like cannonballs, favoring a particular crystalline orientation and so forcing regular angles visible to the naked eye. If we do think about the atoms in us and around us, the persistence of solid stone remains a mystery. Richard Feynman asked a high-school teacher (and never heard a satisfactory reply), “How do sharp things stay sharp all this time if the atoms are always jiggling?”

The adult Feynman asked: If all scientific knowledge were lost in a cataclysm, what single statement would preserve the most information for the next generations of creatures? How could we best pass on our understanding of the world? He proposed, “All things are made of atomslittle particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another,” and he added, “In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.” Although millennia had passed since natural philosophers broached the atomic idea, Feynman’s lifetime saw the first generations of scientists who truly and universally believed in it, not just as a mental convenience but as a hard physical reality. As late as 1922 Bohr, delivering his Nobel Prize address, felt compelled to remind his listeners that scientists “believe the existence of atoms to be proved beyond a doubt.” Richard nevertheless read and reread in the Feynmans’ Encyclopaedia Britannica that “pure chemistry, even to-day, has no very conclusive arguments for the settlement of this controversy.” Stronger evidence was at hand from the newer science, physics: the phenomenon called radioactivity seemed to involve the actual disintegration of matter, so discretely as to produce audible pings or visible blips. Not until the eighties could people say that they had finally seen atoms. Even then the seeing was indirect, but it stirred the imagination to see shadowy globules arrayed in electron-microscope photographs or to see glowing points of orange light in the laser crossfire of “atom traps.”

Not solids but gases began to persuade seventeenth- and eighteenth-century scientists of matter’s fundamental granularity. In the heady aftermath of Newton’s revolution scientists made measurements, found constant quantities, and forged mathematical relationships that a philosophy without numbers had left hidden. Investigators made and unmade water, ammonia, carbonic acid, potash, and dozens of other compounds. When they carefully weighed the ingredients and end products, they discovered regularities. Volumes of hydrogen and oxygen vanished in a neat two-to-one ratio in the making of water. Robert Boyle found in England that, although one could vary both the pressure and the volume of air trapped at a given temperature in a piston, one could not vary their product. Pressure multiplied by volume was a constant. These measures were joined by an invisible rod—why? Heating a gas increased its volume or its pressure. Why?

Heat had seemed to flow from one place to another as an invisible fluid—“phlogiston” or “caloric.” But a succession of natural philosophers hit on a less intuitive idea—that heat was motion. It was a brave thought, because no one could see the things in motion. A scientist had to imagine uncountable corpuscles banging invisibly this way and that in the soft pressure of wind against his face. The arithmetic bore out the guess. In Switzerland Daniel Bernoulli derived Boyle’s law by supposing that pressure was precisely the force of repeated impacts of spherical corpuscles, and in the same way, assuming that heat was an intensification of the motion hither and thither, he derived a link between temperature and density. The corpuscularians advanced again when Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, again with painstaking care, demonstrated that one could keep reliable account books of the molecules entering and exiting any chemical reaction, even when gases joined with solids, as in rusting iron.

“Matter is unchangeable, and consists of points that are perfectly simple, indivisible, of no extent”—that the atom could itself contain a crowded and measurable universe remained for a later century to guess—“& separated from one another.” Ruggiero Boscovich, an eighteenth-century mathematician and director of optics for the French navy, developed a view of atoms with a strikingly prescient bearing, a view that Feynman’s single-sentence credo echoed two centuries later. Boscovich’s atoms stood not so much for substance as for forces. There was so much to explain: how matter compresses elastically or inelastically, like rubber or wax; how objects bounce or recoil; how solids hold together while liquids congeal or release vapors; “effervescences & fermentations of many different kinds, in which the particles go & return with as many different velocities, & now approach towards & now recede from one another.”

The quest to understand the corpuscles translated itself into a need to understand the invisible attractions and repulsions that gave matter its visible qualities. Attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another, Feynman would say simply. That mental picture was already available to a bright high-school student in 1933. Two centuries had brought more and more precise inquiry into the chemical behavior of substances. The elements had proliferated. Even a high-school laboratory could run an electric current through a beaker of water to separate it into its explosive constituents, hydrogen and oxygen. Chemistry as packaged in educational chemistry sets seemed to have reduced itself to a mechanical collection of rules and recipes. But the fundamental questions remained for those curious enough to ask, How do solids stay solid, with atoms always “jiggling”? What forces control the fluid motions of air and water, and what agitation of atoms engenders fire?

A Century of Progress

By then the search for forces had produced a decade of reinterpretation of the nature of the atom. The science known as chemical physics was giving way rapidly to the sciences that would soon be known as nuclear and high-energy physics. Those studying the chemical properties of different substances were trying to assimilate the first startling findings of quantum mechanics. The American Physical Society met that summer in Chicago. The chemist Linus Pauling spoke on the implications of quantum mechanics for complex organic molecules, primitive components of life. John C. Slater, a physicist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, struggled to make a connection between the quantum mechanical view of electrons and the energies that chemists could measure. And then the meeting spilled onto the fairgrounds of the spectacular 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, “A Century of Progress.” Niels Bohr himself spoke on the unsettling problem of measuring anything in the new physics. Before a crowd of visitors both sitting and standing, his ethereal Danish tones often smothered by crying babies and a balking microphone, he offered a principle that he called “complementarity,” a recognition of an inescapable duality at the heart of things. He claimed revolutionary import for this notion. Not just atomic particles, but all reality, he said, fell under its sway. “We have been forced to recognize that we must modify not only all our concepts of classical physics but even the ideas we use in everyday life,” he said. He had lately been meeting with Professor Einstein (their discussions were actually more discordant than Bohr now let on), and they had found no way out. “We have to renounce a description of phenomena based on the concept of cause and effect.”

Elsewhere amid the throngs at the fairground that summer, enduring the stifling heat, were Melville, Lucille, Richard, and Joan Feynman. For the occasion Joan had been taught to eat bacon with a knife and fork; then the Feynmans strapped suitcases to the back of a car and headed off crosscountry, a seemingly endless drive on the local roads of the era before interstate highways. On the way they stayed at farmhouses. The fair spread across four hundred acres on the shore of Lake Michigan, and the emblems of science were everywhere. Progress indeed: the fair celebrated a public sense of science that was reaching a crest. Knowledge Is Power—that earnest motto adorned a book of Richard’s called The Boy Scientist. Science was invention and betterment; it changed the way people lived. The eponymous business enterprises of Edison, Bell, and Ford were knotting the countryside with networks of wire and pavement—an altogether positive good, it seemed. How wonderful were these manifestations of the photon and the electron, lighting lights and bearing voices across hundreds of miles!

Even in the trough of the Depression the wonder of science fueled an optimistic faith in the future. Just over the horizon were fast airships, half-mile-high skyscrapers, and technological cures for diseases of the human body and the body politic. Who knew where the bright young students of today would be able to carry the world? One New York writer painted a picture of his city fifty years in the future: New York in 1982 would hold a magnificent fifty million people, he predicted, the East River and much of the Hudson River having been “filled in.” “Traffic arrangements will no doubt have provided for several tiers of elevated roadways and noiseless railways—built on extended balconies flanking the enormous skyscrapers …” Nourishment will come from concentrated pellets. Ladies’ dress will be streamlined to something like the 1930s bathing suit. The hero of this fantasy was the “high-school genius (who generally knows more than anybody else).” There was no limit to the hopes vested in the young.

Scientists, too, struggled to assimilate the new images pouring into the culture from the laboratory. Electricity powered the human brain itself, a University of Chicago researcher announced that summer; the brain’s central switchboard used vast numbers of connecting lines to join brain cells, each one of which could be considered both a tiny chemical factory and electric battery. Chicago’s business community made the most of these symbols, too. In an opening-day stunt, technicians at four astronomical observatories used faint rays of starlight from Arcturus, forty light-years distant, focused by telescopes and electrically amplified, to turn on the lights of the exposition. “Here are gathered the evidences of man’s achievements in the realm of physical science, proofs of his power to prevail over all the perils that beset him,” declared Rufus C. Dawes, president of the fair corporation, as loud projectiles released hundreds of American flags in the sky over the fairgrounds. Life-size dinosaurs awed visitors. A robot gave lectures. Visitors less interested in science could pay to see an unemployed actress named Sally Rand dance with ostrich-feather fans. The Feynmans, though, took the Sky Ride, suspended on cables between two six-hundred-foot towers, and visited the Hall of Science, where a 151-word wall motto summed up the history of science from Pythagoras to Euclid to Newton to Einstein.

The Feynmans had never heard of Bohr or any of the other physicists gathering in Chicago, but, like most other American newspaper readers, they knew Einstein’s name well. That summer he was traveling in Europe, uprooted, having left Germany for good, preparing to arrive in New York Harbor in October. For fourteen years America had been in the throes of a publicity craze over this “mathematician.” The New York Times, the Feynmans’ regular paper, had led a wave of exaltation with only one precedent, the near deification of Edison a generation earlier. No theoretical scientist, European or American, before or since, ignited such a fever of adulation. A part of the legend, the truest part, was the revolutionary import of relativity for the way citizens of the twentieth century should conceive their universe. Another part was Einstein’s supposed claim that only twelve people worldwide could understand his work. “Lights All Askew in the Heavens,” the Times reported in a 1919 classic of headline writing. “Einstein Theory Triumphs. Stars Not Where They Seem or Were Calculated to Be, but Nobody Need Worry. A Book for 12 Wise Men. No More in the World Could Comprehend It, Said Einstein.” A series of editorials followed. One was titled “Assaulting the Absolute.” Another declared jovially, “Apprehensions for the safety of confidence even in the multiplication table will arise.”

The presumed obscurity of relativity contributed heavily to its popularity. Yet had Einstein’s message really been incomprehensible it could hardly have spread so well. More than one hundred books arrived to explain the mystery. The newspapers mixed tones of reverence and self-deprecating amusement about the mystery of relativity’s paradoxes; in actuality, they and their readers correctly understood the elements of this new physics. Space is curved—curved where gravity warps its invisible fabric. The ether is banished, along with the assumption of an absolute frame of reference for space and time. Light has a fixed velocity, measured at 186,000 miles per second, and its path bends in the sway of gravity. Not long after the general theory of relativity was transmitted by underwater cable to eager New York newspapers, schoolchildren who could barely compute the hypotenuse of a right triangle could nevertheless recite a formula of Einstein’s, E equals MC squared, and some could even report its implication: that matter and energy are theoretically interchangeable; that within the atom lay unreleased a new source of power. They sensed, too, that the universe had shrunk. It was no longer merely everything—an unimaginable totality. Now it might be bounded, thanks to four-dimensional curvature, and somehow it began to seem artificial. As the English physicist J. J. Thomson said unhappily, “We have Einstein’s space, de Sitter’s space, expanding universes, contracting universes, vibrating universes, mysterious universes. In fact the pure mathematician may create universes just by writing down an equation … he can have a universe of his own.”

There will never be another Einstein—just as there will never be another Edison, another Heifetz, another Babe Ruth, figures towering so far above their contemporaries that they stood out as legends, heroes, half-gods in the culture’s imagination. There will be, and almost certainly have already been, scientists, inventors, violinists, and baseball players with the same raw genius. But the world has grown too large for such singular heroes. When there are a dozen Babe Ruths, there are none. In the early twentieth century, millions of Americans could name exactly one contemporary scientist. In the late twentieth century, anyone who can name a scientist at all can name a half-dozen or more. Einstein’s publicists, too, belonged to a more naïve era; icons are harder to build in a time of demythologizing, deconstruction, and pathography. Those celebrating Einstein had the will and the ability to remake the popular conception of scientific genius. It seemed that Edison’s formula favoring perspiration over inspiration did not apply to this inspired, abstracted thinker. Einstein’s genius seemed nearly divine in its creative power: he imagined a certain universe and this universe was born. Genius seemed to imply a detachment from the mundane, and it seemed to entail wisdom. Like sports heroes in the era before television, he was seen exclusively from a distance. Not much of the real person interfered with the myth. By now, too, he had changed from the earnest, ascetic-looking young clerk whose genius had reached its productive peak in the first and second decades of the century. The public had hardly seen that man at all. Now Einstein’s image drew on a colorful and absentminded appearance—wild hair, ill-fitting clothes, the legendary socklessness. The mythologizing of Einstein occasionally extended to others. When Paul A. M. Dirac, the British quantum theorist, visited the University of Wisconsin in 1929, the Wisconsin State Journal published a mocking piece about “a fellow they have up at the U. this spring … who is pushing Sir Isaac Newton, Einstein and all the others off the front page.” An American scientist, the reporter said, would be busy and active, “but Dirac is different. He seems to have all the time there is in the world and his heaviest work is looking out the window.” Dirac’s end of the dialogue was suitably monosyllabic. (The Journal’s readers must have assumed he was an ancient eminence; actually he was just twenty-seven years old.)

“Now doctor will you give me in a few words the low-down on all your investigations?”
“Good. Will it be all right if I put it this way—‘Professor Dirac solves all the problems of mathematical physics, but is unable to find a better way of figuring out Babe Ruth’s batting average’?”

“Do you go to the movies?”
“In 1920—perhaps also 1930.”

The genius was otherworldly and remote. More than the practical Americans whose science meant gizmos and machines, Europeans such as Einstein and Dirac also incarnated the culture’s standard oddball view of the scientist. “Is he the tall, backward boy … ?” Barbara Stanwyck’s character asked in The Lady Eve about Henry Fonda’s, an ophiologist roughly Feynman’s age.

—He isn’t backward, he’s a scientist.
—Oh, is that what it is. I knew he was peculiar.

“Peculiar” meant harmless. It meant that brilliant men paid for their gifts with compensating, humanizing flaws. There was an element of self-defense in the popular view. And there was a little truth. Many scientists did walk through the ordinary world seeming out of place, their minds elsewhere. They sometimes failed to master the arts of dressing carefully or making social conversation.

Had the Journal’s reporter solicited Dirac’s opinion of the state of American science, he might have provoked a longer comment. “There are no physicists in America,” Dirac had said bitingly, in more private company. It was too harsh an assessment, but the margin of his error was only a few years, and when Dirac spoke of physics he meant something new. Physics was not about vacuum cleaners or rayon or any of the technological wonders spreading in that decade; it was not about lighting lights or broadcasting radio waves; it was not even about measuring the charge of the electron or the frequency spectra of glowing gases in laboratory experiments. It was about a vision of reality so fractured, accidental, and tenuous that it frightened those few older American physicists who saw it coming.

“I feel that there is a real world corresponding to our sense perceptions,” Yale University’s chief physicist, John Zeleny, defensively told a Minneapolis audience. “I believe that Minneapolis is a real city and not simply a city of my dreams.” What Einstein had (or had not) said about relativity was truer of quantum mechanics: a bare handful of people had the mathematics needed to understand it.

Richard and Julian

Summer brought a salty heat to Far Rockaway, the wind rising across the beaches. The asphalt shimmered with refractive air. In winter, snow fell early from low, gray clouds; then dazzlingly white hours would pass, the sky too bright to see clearly. Free and impudent times—Richard lost himself in his notebooks, or roamed to the drugstore, where he would play a mean-spirited optical-hydrodynamical trick on the waitress by inverting a glass of water over a one-penny tip on the smooth tabletop.

On the beach some days he watched a particular girl. She had warm, deep blue eyes and long hair that she wore deftly knotted up in a braid. After swimming she would comb it out, and boys Richard knew from school would flock around her. Her name was Arline (for a long time Richard thought it was spelled the usual way, “Arlene”) Greenbaum, and she lived in Cedarhurst, Long Island, just across the city line. He dreamed about her. He thought she was wonderful and beautiful, but getting to know girls seemed hopeless enough, and Arline, he discovered, already had a boyfriend. Even so, he followed her into an after-school social league sponsored by the synagogue. Arline joined an art class, so Richard joined the art class, overlooking a lack of aptitude. Shortly he found himself lying on the floor and breathing through a straw, while another student made a plaster cast of his face.

If Arline noticed Richard, she did not let on. But one evening she arrived at a boy-girl party in the middle of a kissing session. An older boy was teaching couples the correct lip angles and nose positions, and in this instructional context a certain amount of practice was under way. Richard himself was practicing, with a girl he hardly knew. When Arline came in, there was a little commotion. Almost everyone got up to greet her—everyone, it seemed to her, but one horribly rude boy, off in the corner, who ostentatiously kept on kissing.

Occasionally Richard went on dates with other girls. He could never rid himself of a sense that he was a stranger engaging in a ritual the rules to which he did not know. His mother taught him some basic manners. Even so, the waiting in a girl’s parlor with her parents, the procedures for cutting in at dances, the stock phrases (“Thank you for a lovely evening”) all left him feeling inept, as if he could not quite decipher a code everyone else had mastered.

He stayed not quite conscious of the hopes his parents had for him. He was not quite aware of the void left by the death of his infant brother—his mother still thought of the baby often—or of his mother’s social descent to the lower middle class, in increasingly tight circumstances. With the coming of the Depression the Feynmans had to give up the house and yard on New Broadway and move to a small apartment, where they used a dining room and a breakfast room as bedrooms. Melville was often on the road now, selling. When he was home, he would read the National Geographic magazines that he collected secondhand. On Sundays he would go outdoors and paint woodland scenery or flowers. Or he and Richard would take Joan into the city to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They went to the Egyptian section, first studying glyphs in the encyclopedia so that they could stand and decode bits of the chiseled artifacts, a sight that made people stare.

Richard still had some tinkering and probing to do. The Depression broadened the market for inexpensive radio repair, and Richard found himself in demand. In just over a decade of full-scale commercial production, the radio had penetrated nearly half of American households. By 1932 the average price of a new set had fallen to $48, barely a third of the price just three years before. “Midget” sets had arrived, just five tubes compactly arranged within an astonishing six-pound box, containing its own built-in aerial and a shrunken loudspeaker the size of a paper dollar. Some receivers offered knobs that would let the user adjust the high and low tones separately; some advertised high style, like the “satin-finished ebony black Durez with polished chromium grille and trimmings.”

Broken radios confronted Richard with a whole range of pathologies in the circuits he had learned so well. He rewired a plug or climbed a neighbor’s roof to install an antenna. He looked for clues, wax on a condenser or telltale charcoal on a burned-out resistor. Later he made a story out of it—“He Fixes Radios by Thinking!” The hero was an exaggeratedly young boy, with a comically large screwdriver sticking out of his back pocket, who solved an ever-more-challenging sequence of puzzles. The last and best broken radio—the one that established his reputation—made a bloodcurdling howl when first turned on. Richard paced back and forth, thinking, while the curmudgeonly owner badgered him: “What are you doing? Can you fix it?” Richard thought about it. What could be making a noise that changed with time? It must have something to do with the heating of the tubes—first some extraneous signal was swollen into a shriek; then it settled back to normal. Richard stopped pacing, went back to the set, pulled out one tube, pulled out a second tube, and exchanged them. He turned on the set, and the noise had vanished. The boy who fixes radios by thinking—that was how he saw himself, reflected in the eyes of his customers in Far Rockaway. Reason worked. Equations could be trusted; they were more than schoolbook exercises. The heady rush of solving a puzzle, of feeling the mental pieces shift and fade and rearrange themselves until suddenly they slid into their grooves—the sense of power and sheer rightness—these pleasures sustained an addiction. Luxuriating in the buoyant joy of it, Feynman could sink into a trance of concentration that even his family found unnerving.

Knowledge was rarer then. A secondhand magazine was an occasion. For a Far Rockaway teenager merely to find a mathematics textbook took will and enterprise. Each radio program, each telephone call, each lecture in a local synagogue, each movie at the new Gem theater on Mott Avenue carried the weight of something special. Each book Richard possessed burned itself into his memory. When a primer on mathematical methods baffled him, he worked through it formula by formula, filling a notebook with self-imposed exercises. He and his friends traded mathematical tidbits like baseball cards. If a boy named Morrie Jacobs told him that the cosine of 20 degrees multiplied by the cosine of 40 degrees multiplied by the cosine of 80 degrees equaled exactly one-eighth, he would remember that curiosity for the rest of his life, and he would remember that he was standing in Morrie’s father’s leather shop when he learned it.

Even with the radio era in full swing, one’s senses encountered nothing like the bombardment of images and sounds that television would bring—accelerated, flash-cut, disposable knowledge. For now, knowledge was scarce and therefore dear. It was the same for scientists. The currency of scientific information had not yet been devalued by excess. For a young student, that meant that the most timely questions were surprisingly close to hand. Feynman recognized early the special, distinctive feeling of being close to the edge of knowledge, where people do not know the answers. Even in grade school, when he would haunt the laboratory late in the afternoon, playing with magnets and helping a teacher clean up, he recognized the pleasure of asking questions that the teacher could not handle. Now, graduating from high school, he could not tell how near or how far he was from science’s active frontier, where scientists pulled fresh problems like potatoes from the earth, and in fact he was not far. The upheaval caused by quantum mechanics had laid the fundamental issues bare. Physics was still a young science, more obscure than any human knowledge to date, yet still something of a family business. Its written record remained small, even as whole new scientific frameworks—nuclear physics, quantum field theory—were being born. The literature sustained just a handful of journals, still mostly in Europe. Richard knew nothing of these.

Across town, another precocious teenager, named Julian Schwinger, had quietly inserted himself into the world of the new physics. He was already as much a creature of the city as Feynman was of the city’s outskirts: the younger son of a well-to-do garment maker, growing up in Jewish Harlem and then on Riverside Drive, where dark, stately apartment buildings and stone town houses followed the curve of the Hudson River. The drive was built for motor traffic, but truck horses still pulled loads of boxes to the merchants of Broadway, a few blocks east. Schwinger knew how to find books; he often prowled the used-book stores of lower Fourth and Fifth Avenues for advanced texts on mathematics and physics. He attended Townsend Harris High School, a nationally famous institution associated with the City College of New York, and even before he entered City College, in 1934, when he was sixteen, he found out what physics was—the modern physics. With his long, serious face and slightly stooped shoulders he would sit in the college’s library and read papers by Dirac in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London or the Physikalische Zeitschrift der Sowjetunion. He also read the Physical Review, now forty years past its founding; it had advanced from monthly to biweekly publication in hopes of competing more nimbly with the European journals. Schwinger struck his teachers as intensely shy. He carried himself with a premature elegant dignity.

That year he carefully typed out on six legal-size sheets his first real physics paper, “On the Interaction of Several Electrons,” and the same elegance was evident. It assumed for a starting point the central new tenet of field theory: “that two particles do not interact directly but, rather the interaction is explained as being caused by one of the particles influencing the field in its vicinity, which influence spreads until it reaches the second particle.” Electrons do not simply bounce off one another, that is. They plow through that magnificent ether substitute, the field; the waves they make then swish up against other electrons. Schwinger did not pretend to break ground in this paper. He showed his erudition by adopting “the quantum electrodynamics of Dirac, Fock, and Podolsky,” the “Heisenberg representation” of potentials in empty space, the “Lorentz-Heaviside units” for expressing such potentials in relatively compact equations. This was heavy machinery in soft terrain. The field of Maxwell, which brought electricity and magnetism together so effectively, now had to be quantized, built up from finite-size packets that could be reduced no further. Its waves were simultaneously smooth and choppy. Schwinger, in his first effort at professional physics, looked beyond even this difficult electromagnetic field to a more abstract field still, a field twice removed from tangible substance, buoying not particles but mathematical operators. He pursued this conception through a sequence of twenty-eight equations. Once, at equation 20, he was forced to pause. A fragment of the equation had grown unmanageable—infinite, in fact. To the extent that this fragment corresponded to something physical, it was the tendency of an electron to act on itself. Having shaken its field, the electron is shaken back, with (so the mathematics insisted) infinite energy. Dirac and the others had grudgingly settled on a response to this difficulty, and Schwinger handled it in the prescribed manner: he simply discarded the offending term and moved on to equation 21.

Julian Schwinger and Richard Feynman, exact contemporaries, obsessed as sixteen-year-olds with the abstract mental world of a scientist, had already set out on different paths. Schwinger studying the newest of the new physics, Feynman filling schoolboy notebooks with standard mathematical formulas, Schwinger entering the arena of his elders, Feynman still trying to impress his peers with practical jokes, Schwinger striving inward toward the city’s intellectual center, Feynman haunting the beaches and sidewalks of its periphery—they would hardly have known what to say to each other. They would not meet for another decade; not until Los Alamos. Long afterward, when they were old men, after they had shared a Nobel Prize for work done as rivals, they amazed a dinner party by competing to see who could most quickly recite from memory the alphabetical headings on the spines of their half-century-old edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

As his childhood ended, Richard worked at odd jobs, for a neighborhood printer or for his aunt, who managed one of the smaller Far Rockaway resort hotels. He applied to colleges. His grades were perfect or near perfect in mathematics and science but less than perfect in other subjects, and colleges in the thirties enforced quotas in the admission of Jews. Richard spent fifteen dollars on a special entrance examination for Columbia University, and after he was turned down he long resented the loss of the fifteen dollars. MIT accepted him.